Coming to a political consciousness is not a painless task. To overcome denial means facing the everyday, normative cruelty of a whole society, a society made up of millions of people who are participating in that cruelty, and if not directly, then as bystanders with benefits. A friend of mine who grew up in extreme poverty recalled becoming politicized during her first year in college, a year of anguish over the simple fact that “there were rich people and there were poor people, and there was a relationship between the two.” You may have to face full-on the painful experiences you denied in order to survive, and even the humiliation of your own collusion. But knowledge of oppression starts from the bedrock that subordination is wrong and resistance is possible. The acquired skill of analysis can be psychologically and even spiritually freeing.
– Lierre Keith1
Strictly speaking, all of my problems, the whole drama of my life and suffering, can be summarized in one word: poverty.
From birth, it seems to have been my destiny, the element that determines my life the most. I really don’t want to see myself as a victim. But I can no longer accept the widespread opinion (one could also call it dominant ideology) that everyone is responsible for his or her own destiny; that everyone can make it, if he or she only strives and works hard enough. Because this is simply wrong.
I have tried seriously for many years to gain a foothold in the world of work. I am smart, educated, have a well-groomed appearance, and two academic degrees. But it’s not my fault.
My “mistake” was merely to enter the “labour market” shortly after the introduction of Gerhard Schroeder’s Agenda 2010 and the associated Hartz “reforms”.2
What the poor need to understand, is that poverty is a political goal, because poverty is a fundamental pillar of capitalism.
Money, at least in theory, is nothing more than a means of exchange. But as it is used in reality, it is an ideological instrument of power with a quasi-religious character which is used with increasing brutality.
As Max Wilbert writes in a recent interview, “The world today is being run by people who believe in money as a god. They’re insane, but they have vast power, and they’re using that power in the real world. That’s the physical manifestation of their violent, corrupt ideology.”
In his book Endgame, the writer Derrick Jensen radically deconstructs the “religion” of money. He writes: “There are no rich people in the world, and there are no poor people. There are just people. The rich may have lots of pieces of green paper that many pretend are worth something—or their presumed riches may be even more abstract: numbers on hard drives at banks—and the poor may not. These “rich” claim they own land, and the “poor” are often denied the right to make that same claim. A primary purpose of the police is to enforce the delusions of those with lots of pieces of green paper. Those without the green papers generally buy into these delusions almost as quickly and completely as those with. These delusions carry with them extreme consequences in the real world.”3
Money is power. Poverty is an immaterial prison. And the Hartz-laws, with the contemptuous ideology and systematic agitation (classism) behind them, are an immaterial concentration camp.
Welcome to fascism 2.0, the smart fascism of the 21st century.
First of all: I am aware that the comparison with the concentration camps is sensitive. In no way do I want to trivialize the horror of the physical Nazi concentration camps. Under no circumstances should this comparison be understood as a disregard for the suffering of the victims and their descendants.
I am talking about an immaterial concentration camp to make it clear that this time it is mainly ideological walls in which the inmates are held prisoner.
This ideology, however, has some functional parallels with the real concentration camps. And these practices have been incorporated into a legal framework in German legislation, namely the SGB II, colloquially called Hartz Laws.
Expropriation: Whoever ends up in the immaterial concentration camp HartzIV is systematically expropriated. He/she is forced to sell any “usable property”, including saved retirement provisions. Without Newspeech one could also simply say: They are robbed.
Disenfranchisement: Rights enshrined in the German Basic Law, such as the right to freedom of movement and free choice of occupation, no longer apply. “HartzIV is an open prison system,” says entrepreneur Götz Werner. In fact, HartzIV recipients are subject to the so-called “Accessibility Order”, i.e. they must be reachable at any time by letter post in order to be able to come to the authority the next day and immediately be available for a job offer.
Forced labour: HartzIV recipients must accept any “reasonable work” under threat of sanctions. The journalist Susan Bonath writes about this: “The unemployed, for example, were assigned to do clean-up work or collect garbage in cities, they had to maintain green spaces and monuments or to read aloud in nursing homes. All models had and have one thing in common: those affected work at extremely low wages, from which they alone cannot live. Compulsory work models for outsourced workers are not inventions of modern capitalists. Let us recall the workhouses whose history stretches from the early modern period to the industrial age. The German fascists established the Reich Labour Service. The aim of those in power behind it is clear: they wanted to make the unemployment that was increasingly produced in times of crisis invisible and – more or less brutally – to prevent those affected through employment from thinking about their situation.”4
There have been cases where women have been advised by the authorities to prostitute themselves, because – thanks also to Gerhard Schröder – this is now nothing more than a legal job in the service sector.5
Demoralization: Recipients are regularly summoned to appointments under threat of sanctions and interrogated like criminals, furthermore demoralized with the apportionment of blame and shame to be “difficult to mediate”. The institutions are operating a perfidious psycho-terror in order to scare their victims (called “customers” in neoliberal Newspeech) and systematically demoralize them. With the words of anti-HartzIV activist Manfred Bartl: “At no point is it really about ‘the human being’, but about either breaking him or her and/or making him or her identify with his ongoing oppression. But where this succeeds, nobody resists against this regime any more, because then everyone believes it: I am obviously to blame myself, I have experienced it often enough in the meantime…hence the problem of mass unemployment are not the unemployed, who only had to be “improved”, as the Hartz IV regime repeatedly circulates, but it’s the increasingly inhuman “labour market” on the one hand and the Social Code II, which literally keeps them out, on the other!6
Exclusion, stigmatization and the creation of a new class of people: Indeed, the entire design of the HartzIV ideological concentration camp aims to create a new class of people in Germany who did not previously exist in this way. And it aims to keep the new lower class powerless and dependent. Resistance is suffocated from the outset by a perfidious, sophisticated mixture of ideology, class division through systematic propaganda in the corporate media, the greatest possible economic dependence and the permanent fear of those affected through the threat of sanctions.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who studies the neoliberal psycho politics, comments: “It’s madness how scared the Hartz people live here. They are held in this bannoptikum, (a panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It is a design where a guard can watch all the prisoners from the middle. The term panopticon is nowadays used as a synonym for the global mass surveillance. A bannopticon in this sense is a prison in which the inmates are banned, becoming invisible for the public) so that they do not break out of their fear-cell. I know many Hartzer, they are treated like garbage. In one of the richest countries in the world, Germany, people are treated like scum. Dignity is taken away from them. Of course, these people do not protest because they are ashamed. They blame themselves instead of blaming or accusing society. No political action can be expected from this class.”7
With the new class, the institutions created by the Hartz laws administer an army of workers who are supplied at the lowest level and who must be available, mobile, and flexible as possible at all times for any form of work. As such they exert enormous pressure on those who still have regular jobs. The Agenda 2010 was therefore also an effective instrument for wage dumping and the creation of a new, gigantic low-wage sector, for which Gerhard Schröder received great praise from his colleagues from France and other European countries.
The declared aim of the institutions (Newspeech Jobcenter) is to provide the unemployed with jobs that secure their livelihood, i.e. to get them out of unemployment (and thus out of unemployment statistics) as quickly as possible. However, this goal is nothing more that another of the usual neoliberal lies. In reality, very few people manage to escape from dependence. The authorities thus also administer a large part of the working poor, who work, but whose wages are below the HartzIV level. They fall out of the official statistics, but remain dependent and under the full control of the authorities with all the measures mentioned above.
The propaganda often proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the new class in a familiar way: derided as lazy alcoholics, many actually end up as apathetic alcoholics in order to endure their hopeless existence.
This is indeed a contemptuous treatment of a class of people who are no longer worth anything in our culture. They are superfluous, rubbish, rejects, waste. We‘ve seen this before.
It’s therefore not surprising that HartzIV recipients have a significantly increased stress level. Physicians know that chronic stress is one of the most common causes of life-threatening cardiovascular disease and strokes. Those who die of stress and anxiety or end up in the medical-industrial complex are excluded from unemployment statistics. This is how concentration camps work today.
But in smart fascism 2.0, violence is ideologically much better packaged and gets along without its direct physical forms, because direct, physical violence always generates resistance, which the system must suppress or avoid.
The modern ruling class no longer needs to get their hands dirty. Instead, they use what Rainer Mausfeld calls “Soft Power”:
“The most important goal is to neutralize the will of the population to change society, or to divert attention to politically irrelevant goals. In order to achieve this in the most robust and consistent way possible, manipulation techniques aim at much more than just political opinions. They aim at a targeted shaping of all aspects that affect our political, social and cultural life, as well as our individual ways of life. To a certain extent, they aim to create a ‘new human being’ whose social life merges into the role of the politically apathetic consumer. In this sense they are totalitarian, so that the great democracy-theorist Sheldon Wolin rightly speaks of an ‘inverted totalitarianism’, a new form of totalitarianism that is not perceived by the population as totalitarianism.”8
One cannot understand our society, or rather what is left of it, without realizing that it consists of social groups or classes. Capitalist/neoliberal ideology says that there are no classes or groups, not even society.
“Who is society? There is no such thing!” said the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher. Within neoliberal ideology, there are only individuals who (must) assert their own interests on the market. Meanwhile, the ideology, as promoted by Thatcher, has indeed managed to completely atomize what was left of society and to transform it into an aggregate of totally isolated and alienated individuals who compete with each other on the labor market and passionately exploit themselves, while those below languish inside the immaterial prison poverty, or the Hartz-concentration camp.
The ideology is deeply hammered into our heads. We have been taught to feel so much shame about our failure that we do not resist. Instead, we submit to these modern forms of slavery and forced labor. The systematic hatred between classes makes it so that the intellectuals and the middle class, who would have the moral duty to show solidarity with the lower classes and to reject such systematic oppression, are, unfortunately, mostly followers and accept the modern concentration camps, just as the good Germans already did in the past. They could have (must have!) got up, back then as well as now, and said: We are not going with that!
Many people (at least in Germany) still tend to regard the legal system and executive authorities as something positive, as institutions created to serve and help the population. In the meantime, neoliberal Newspeak prevails here as well. Laws and authorities are increasingly created and used as instruments of exploitation and oppression.
“Law organizes power”, as lawyer Catherine McKinnon puts it.
The social reality of the lower classes, of those imprisoned in poverty or HartzIV cannot (and shall not) be understood by the upper classes, the well-earning doctors, lawyers, judges and so on, and the middle class, which, indoctrinated by the neoliberal ideology, passionately exploits itself. Therefore, these classes are easily accessible to the agitation and classism practiced by those in power. Just as there was little resistance in the population against the concentration camps at that time, there is little resistance today against the mass impoverishment, oppression and systematic exploitation of large sections of the population with the Hartz laws.
As Susan Bonath writes, “the Macron government in France is also planning massive social cuts. And it wants to spy on the unemployed in a similar way to Germany. Therefore, the Paris Ministry of Labour recently announced, the administrative staff would be increased. Instead of 200, 1,000 inspectors will in future be released onto the unemployed. The goal of the agenda of those in power here and there is clear: employees will be muzzled. They should stay still for fear of relegation. The servitude of the 21st century sends its greetings.”9
Before the Macron government could push its “reforms” as far as the Schröder government did in Germany, masses of poor people are already taking to the streets in France and other countries. The yellow warning vests they wear are a powerful symbol of a united resistance of the poor and economically detached.
If you currently walk around Heidelberg, where I live, a rich and rather elitist university town, with a yellow vest, people look at you like a criminal. “Working class”, their looks say, “underclass”, “dirt”.
Before putting on the vest I had unfortunately forgotten that (even symbolic) resistance, which is merely a struggle for our basic rights and livelihoods, is prohibited in the highly conformist German society, which is effectively policing itself by social norms. “Inverted totalitarianism” indeed.
The usual self-righteous, dismissive commentaries of the bourgeoisie on the violence of the insurgents are blind to the inherent forms of systematic economic and structural violence deeply rooted in our social system, against which the poor and economically detached with the yellow vests resist. They do not want to see that our society “is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”10
I just heard from an activist who got a visit from the Criminal Investigation Department because she had a yellow vest hanging from her balcony. She was told by the police that it is “not okay for someone to show one’s political opinion like that”.
Welcome to Fascism 2.0.
It is time for a global uprising of the poor. Our common goal must be to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.
1 Aric McBay, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen (2011): Deep Green Resistance: Stategy to Save the Planet S. 73
2 I‘d describe the German HartzIV-laws to the English-speaking public merely as a kind of poverty management. To quote Wikipedia: „The unemployment benefit II (colloquially mostly Hartz IV) is the basic security benefit for employable beneficiaries in Germany according to the Second Book of the Social Code (SGB II)…However, it can be shortened or completely deleted by permissible sanctions; the subsistence minimum is not paid unconditionally.“
3 Derrick Jensen (2006) Endgame Vol 1: The Problem of Civilization p. XI
4 https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/der-andere-krieg (translated from German)
5 “The prostitution law now in force came into being under the red-green government of Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and has been in force since January 2002. It is considered to be one of the most liberal in the world – which earned him the accusation of having made Germany the “brothel of Europe”. Since 2002, sex work has no longer been regarded as “immoral”, but as a service. Prostitutes have the opportunity to register for health insurance, pension and unemployment insurance. Two years earlier, Sweden had banned prostitution; since then, customers of sex work are criminalized.”
https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/prostitutionsgesetz-guetesiegel-fuer-bordelle/10334474.htmlie (translated from German)
6 https://www.nachdenkseiten.de/?p=25168 (translated from German)
7 Interview Zeit Online: https://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2014/05/byung-chul-han-philosophie-neoliberalismus (translated from German)
8 Rainer Mausfeld (2018): Warum schweigen die Lämmer? p. 17f (translated from German)
9 https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/der-andere-krieg (translated from German)
10 Derrick Jensen (2006) Endgame Vol 1: The Problem of Civilization p. IX